Strange Bedfellows: Socialists And Libertarians
The author Ayn Rand, who considered herself an adamant defender of capitalism, once described libertarians as the “hippies of the right.” “I disapprove of, disagree with and have no connection with, the latest aberration of some conservatives, the so-called ‘hippies of the right,’ who attempt to snare the younger or more careless ones of my readers by claiming simultaneously to be followers of my philosophy and advocates of anarchism. Anyone offering such a combination confesses his inability to understand either,” Rand wrote in The Objectivist in 1971.
At the heart of Rand’s argument is the undue analogy of libertarians being anarchists — by assuming an individual-first philosophy, a person is negating and ignoring the fundamental philosophies needed to proliferate a free market “for the sake of some superficial political action which is bound to fail. It means that you help the defeat of your ideas and the victory of your enemies.”
Libertarians, for the most part, remain a misunderstood and often exaggerated element of the American political system. While the subset that qualifies under the Merriam-Webster definition of libertarian — “lib·er·tar·i·an, noun, 1) an advocate of the doctrine of free will; 2) a: a person who upholds the principles of individual liberty especially of thought and action, b. capitalized: a member of a political party advocating libertarian principles” — encompasses 28 percent of the voting populace in some version or form, the notion of libertarian populism, or the idea of the people’s rejection of the establishment, popularized by Sen. Rand Paul (R – Ky.), has become what most people think of as libertarianism in current political conversations.
Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, argued libertarian populism as “the politics against all things big;” “‘populist libertarianism’ — a strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of ‘bigness’ in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well.”
This allegedly anti-government, seemingly obstructionist methodology of this approach to politics has been a major component of the gridlock and polarization that has seized the gears of Congress. Ayn Rand, who is identified as an influence to many libertarians, said in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, “I will never live for the sake of another man,” which has been taken as a characterizing attitude to this line of political thought.
Intersections of socialism and libertarianism
But, in many key ways, libertarian populist theory mirrors that of its opposing philosophy, socialism. An example of this is the question of spying on Americans. Libertarians argue that domestic spying directly infringes on one’s individual liberties and rights to assume “reasonable privacy” within their own private space.
Libertarians also argue that any government power that is not rigidly defined and challengeable by private citizens can be exploited and misused and should be assumed to have been exploited and misused. Interestingly enough, socialists feel the same way. Such poorly-defined hidden government powers can be used to challenge or impede political activism and to protect the interests of the government and big business.
Currently, the country is at a unique intersection of political ideology, where many divergent ideas and concepts reach a common point in their trajectories. This represents a rare understanding where the philosophies may be different, but the drawn conclusion to many of the nation’s most contentious issues are shared among socialists and libertarians.
Shared thoughts on health care
Another example of this is the Affordable Care Act. Despite calls on the right that the president’s signature health care legislation is socialist, the notion of forcing individuals on to an insurance exchange actually held from previous Republican platforms. The socialist position on health care is a single payer system, in which the government assumes all insurance responsibilities for all citizens and a controlled premium rate is drawn from tax revenues. According to the Socialist Party USA, the socialist position is a rejection of ACA. “While citizens in most other industrialized nations enjoyed the benefits of publicly administered health care from the aftermath of WW II forward, Americans have suffered under a health care system dominated by private corporations,” the group said in a statement.
Libertarians reject the ACA on the grounds that it is a de facto tax, requiring that all Americans must buy into a health insurance plan or face fines.
Shared thoughts on the military and foreign policy
Foreign policy is another point of commonality. Libertarians argue that the United States should engage in “armed neutrality,” in which while the nation takes steps to protect international free trade, it also avoids “foreign entanglements” by shunning negative international relationships, denies foreign aid as a measure of anti-terrorism and commits the military to the sole business of national defense.
“The military budget of the United States, conservatively measured at around $700 billion (but probably closer to $1 trillion once all security measures and veteran benefits are considered), is approximately equal to all of the military budgets of all other countries combined,” the Libertarian Party wrote on its issues page. “If the US military budget were cut in half, it would still be the largest in the world. Then, if it were cut in half again, it would STILL be the largest in the world. Then, if it were cut in half a third time, reduced to only one-eighth its current size, it would STILL be the largest in the world. And that’s using the conservative measure.”
“Whatever motivates this enormous budget, it is certainly not for the defense of American soil. Indeed, when the Department of Homeland Security was created, this was a virtual admission that the Department of Defense had goals other than homeland security. No foreign army has the slightest capacity to invade the United States, and as North Korea has demonstrated, even the possession of a single nuclear weapon is enough to deter invasion.”
Socialists argue that the money and resources utilized in the maintenance of the nation’s military infrastructure can be used for social programs toward improving the lives of the citizenry.
Shared thoughts on immigration
Both socialists and libertarians reject the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. As written by Daniel Griswold, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, “[We] can spend billions more to beef up border patrols. We can erect hundreds of miles of ugly fence slicing through private property along the Rio Grande. We can raid more discount stores and chicken-processing plants from coast to coast. We can require all Americans to carry a national ID card and seek approval from a government computer before starting a new job. Or we can change our immigration law to more closely conform to how millions of normal people actually live.
“Crossing an international border to support your family and pursue dreams of a better life is not an inherently criminal act like rape or robbery. If it were, then most of us descend from criminals. As the people of Texas know well, the large majority of illegal immigrants are not bad people. They are people who value family, faith and hard work trying to live within a bad system.”
While libertarians and socialists differ on the guest worker program, both groups agree that there should be established legal protections not only for existing illegal immigrants, but for new immigrants as well, and that immigration quotas should be responsive to the labor needs of the nation.
Shared thoughts on free speech
Finally, while there is no established statement from the Socialist Party in regards to free speech, the platform does support the public funding of newspapers and magazines and public ownership of satellite and cable networks, and opposes restrictions of “fair use,” copyright extension laws and private ownership of the Internet backbone. While it cannot be argued that libertarians support all or any of these issues, they have taken an explicit stance against online censorship and have called for unrestricted freedom of speech.
In light of the challenges the Congress and the nation as a whole have in front of them, consideration of the common ground that lies between the extreme left and the extreme right should be kept in mind. In regards, for example, to the recent negotiations and debates concerning immigration reform and the future of the military, a move past partisan posturing toward what the two sides actually believe may show that the road to compromise is shorter than both thought.
The fine truth lies in the fact that a person that separates himself with labels stands alone. In America, all political thought crosses another eventually.
This article originally appeared on MintPress on Aug. 13, 2013.
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